Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Robert Shaw – Stravinsky: Firebird/ Borodin: Overture & Dances From Prince Igor – Telarc Records/Concord Music Group TEL 00005 (1978/2018) [distr. by Universal Music Group] 180-gram stereo vinyl, 42:47 ****1/2:

Igor Stravinsky is widely regarded as one of the most prominent composers of the 20th Century. His father (Fyodor Stravinsky) was a bassist at the Kiev Opera house. As a young prodigy, he eventually took lessons from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1909, two of Stravinsky’s orchestral works, Scherzo Fantastique and Feu d’artifice were performed in St. Petersburg. There, impresario Sergei Diaghilev (who was trying to introduce Russian ballet to France) commissioned Stravinsky to complete some orchestrations and compose a “full-length” ballet. This orchestral ballet  was known as The Firebird, and represented Stravinsky’s breakthrough. The collaboration continued with Petrushka and The Rite Of Spring. 1907-1919 was known as the Russian Period of Stravinsky’s career. He moved to Switzerland, unable to return to his native land after World War I and The Russian Revolution. Stravinsky eventually lived in France and The United States (West Hollywood).

From 1920 – 1954, the composer entered into a Neo-Classical period. He produced works like Persephone, Orpheus, Concerto for Piano And Winds and Serenade In A. The final act of Stravinsky was devoted to serial compositions. He was noted for the utilization of twelve-tone dodecaphony on Agon and Canticum Sacrum. Stravinsky’s musical style was diverse. His inclination for motivic development and ostinati influenced a new generation of classical composers including Phillip Glass and Aaron Copland. His ability to compose for ensembles of all sizes epitomized his innovative spirit. Time choose him as one of the 100 most influential people of the century. Despite a somewhat contentious professional life, Igor Stravinsky is hailed as classical icon.

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky, by Pablo Picasso

Igor Stravinsky,
by Pablo Picasso

Concord Music Group has released a 180-gram vinyl of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus Firebird/Borodin: Overtures And Dances From Prince Igor. Conceived as an orchestral ballet, conductor Robert Shaw has selected the 1919 Suite which Stravinsky pared down the instrumentation. In what is considered traditional Russian contexts, Stravinsky transformed the odyssey of the hero Prince Ivan to liberate the magical creatures under the shell of Koshei The Immortal. The concerto opens with the foreboding murmur of cello and bass as the prince begins his journey. Then there is a rhythmic orchestral shift to dancing with punctuated strings. In this work, Shaw showcases the woodwinds prominently. He combines symphonic and pastoral elements, not unlike his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. The music is bold and inventive. There are many tempo and mood alterations reflecting the different characters. Flutes, piccolo and woodwinds inject a carefree imagery. As the drama unfolds, the urgency is emphasized by explosive strings, brass and percussion. Some of the musical forms are steeped in tradition, but there are some modern nuances in a brief “circus-like motif. Most of all, Stravinsky’s music is evocative and visceral. As the heroic Ivan prevails over sinister forces there is a sweeping romantic statement, brass fanfare (like a coronation) and a superb key modulation. The Firebird Suite as performed by the Atlantic Symphony is complex and heartwarming.

Portrait of Alexander Borodin

Alexander Borodin

In keeping with the theme of Russian composers, the orchestra takes on two works by Alexander Borodin. He was a successful doctor and chemist. but this cellist was an avid devotee of chamber music. His earlier works, especially  First Quartet and Second Quartet were influenced by Felix Mendelssohn. His passionate commitment to traditional Russian music was unabashed. But it was his four-part opera Prince Igor that became his ultimate legacy. He worked on the opera for 18 years. It was ultimately completed and edited by Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov after Borodin’s premature death in 1887. Musical themes from Borodin were  adapted to the Broadway show “Kismet”. On “The Prince Igor Overture”. the overall musical context of this piece is narrative, introducing character and story. From the stately restrained opening (like a soliloquy), Borodin sets up the conflict between the Russian and Polovetsian cultures, in stark instrumental contrasts. With pastoral subtlety and whimsy, the Russian folk soul is delineated in simple terms. When the “invaders’ are represented there appears to be sharper chromatic arrangement. Cellos are imbued with a threatening resonance,  while the heroes are rendered by reeds and woodwinds are plaintive. With balanced instrumentation, the linear storyline is captured. Expanding by a chorale assist, Polovetsian Dances” reinforces the dual  approach. The chorus sings harmoniously on the “No. 17”. Broadway enthusiasts will recognize the melody as “Stranger In Paradise”. It reprises later in the performance. By comparison, the “male” dances have ominous vocals with distinct volume increases. There are brisk dance segues with plucked strings. This music has universal appeal.

Like all of the digital Telarc vinyl recordings, the production (Robert Woods) and sound engineering (Jack Renner) is meticulous. The trend-setting Soundstream Digital Recording System is vibrant. Cellos, violas and drum anchor the bottom of the mix with a palpable rumble. The strings and flutes are more restrained at the high end. Inside the gatefold, incisive liner notes detail libretto and the plethora of technical recording information. There is even a photograph of Thomas G. Stockham Jr. inventor of the Soundstream Digital Recorder. The pressing is flawless without any hisses or pops.

TrackList:

Side  1:
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1919 Version)/Introduction; Round Dance Of The Princesses; Internal Dance Of King Kastchei; Berceuse; Finale

Side 2:
Alexander Borodin: Music From Prince Igor – Overture; Polovetsian Dances (with chorus) 

—Robbie Gerson

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